“I’m Skeptical:” College Students and the News


ST. PETERSBURG, RUSSIA

Whom do we trust? That’s a good question at this moment, when we are gripped by questions of what is “fake news.” And it’s a good name for a conference co-sponsored by Track Two here in St. Petersburg, Russia, which includes Russians and Americans discussing what we can believe of what we are told about ourselves and each other. Over the next few days, groups of college students – two Russian, two American at a time – will be sitting down to compare their media consumption habits. The idea is to reveal and dissect our perceptions and biases, attempting to tease apart what goes into our political ideas and assumptions. Today, the first day of three, began with four students in their early 20’s struggling to define what tools they used in seeking information, and how they knew if they were assessing the news accurately. One thing emerged immediately: comparing news sources is essential to understanding what’s real and what’s fake. Nick, a 21-year-old political science major at the Miami University, Ohio, says he returns again and again to history and historians he trusts. This is doubly true when the news concerns Russia, and perhaps one reason he is here studying. “I want to learn what happening but also why” it happened, he explained. He turns to American scholars who understand Russia, like Stephen Cohen, and former diplomats like Jack Matlock. Nick trusts him because Matlock was U.S. Ambassador at the end of the Cold War – someone who knows Russia and the U.S.

Anastasia, a 22-year-old student at St. Petersburg University, prefers to get news from “small agencies,” like Fantanka, Meduza and Channel 78. In Russia these are usually liberal-leaning and activist-oriented. Then she turns to the large state-sponsored sources, like Channel 1, and triangulates.

Nikita, 22, of Herzen State Pedagogical University (which is co-hosting the conference), looks to columnists whose opinions he trusts, and to bloggers like Ilya Varlamov. Luisa, a 21-year-old student at Claremont McKenna College, speaks fluent Spanish (she is Mexican by birth) and so watches the news channel Televisa as well as U.S. news sources. She finds that American news is quite self-obsessed.

Finally, it became clear that all of these students were skeptical – of their own nation’s media and of news media in the other country. “Do we trust anyone? I don’t,” said Nick. Luisa worried that when it comes to social media, no one can be trusted because they are “not willing to go the extra mile” to learn what is true. Anastasia, who studied in the US for a year, said, “Russian media claims that the American people don’t question their own media,” but she saw for herself that they do. “Everyone has a bias,” Nikita commented, “I myself am biased towards the left. I only trust those who explain their bias.”

PHOTO CREDIT: Evelyn Messinger

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